MIDDLEBURY — Addison District Court Judge Cortland Corsones on Wednesday sentenced former Vergennes Police Chief Mike Lowe to six months in prison for one of the three charges to which Lowe pleaded guilty in January, a felony count of obtaining prescription drugs by fraud.
The full sentence for Lowe, 51, on that charge called for 1-2 years, but Corsones suspended all but six months of it.
Corsones also gave Lowe suspended sentences on the other charges Lowe faced: six to 12 months for driving under the influence of prescription drugs on June 7, 2009, when an unmarked cruiser driven by Lowe struck a parked car, triggering his legal woes; and six months to a year for neglect of duty, a charge related to trading a gun taken as evidence to a patrolman for the purchase of vitamin supplements.
Lowe, an eight-year veteran of the Vergennes force, will perform 120 hours of community service for the DUI charge. He has admitted an addiction to pain-killing drugs that began after neck surgery, and has been undergoing treatment and counseling since June. According to an expert who testified at court, he has passed all drug tests since then.
In imposing the sentence, Corsones said he gave most weight to the felony count. That charge stemmed from Lowe pressuring a young officer into regularly giving the chief the officer’s prescription drugs.
“The most concerning aspect of the defendant’s conduct is his willingness to abuse his position of authority to feed his addiction, although clearly it (the conduct) was strongly influenced by that addiction ... But that cannot excuse his conduct,” Corsones said. “The court notes that according to the medical records Mr. Lowe was aware of his narcotics dependency back in 2007. If Mr. Lowe had availed himself of available assistance back then, perhaps we would not be here today.”
Lowe’s attorney, Richard Goldsborough of South Burlington, had asked for a rehabilitative sentence with no jail time. Lowe’s probation officer, Sean O’Connell, also testified in court that the Department of Corrections did not recommend a jail sentence.
O’Connell said his evaluation showed that Lowe stood only a 20 percent chance of a repeat offense, and that Lowe’s loss of job and career was effective punishment.
“(I recommended) no incarcerative time based on his low risk level and the fact that he’s already done his treatment and he’s currently in aftercare,” O’Connell said. “We feel in this case, from the department’s standpoint, he’s already served somewhat of a sentence.”
Marcia Ring, a clinical nurse specialist in adult psychiatry and University of Vermont assistant professor who is one of three mental health professionals treating Lowe, testified that Lowe’s problems run deeper than drug addiction.
Ring said that Lowe had been misdiagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD), when in fact he is bipolar. Ring and other professionals made the proper diagnosis after Lowe returned from drug treatment in Florida last summer.
“Some of the symptoms ... can mimic the symptoms of attention deficit disorder, and bipolar disorder can be very difficult to diagnose,” she said.
Not only did bipolar disorder pose a problem for Lowe, Ring said, but drugs prescribed for ADD made it worse.
“Somebody who is manic or hypomanic and is being treated with something that further stimulates the brain, that’s just going to feed into the lack of judgment, the lack of coherent, logical thought processes,” Ring said.
Ring opposed jail time for Lowe because it would pose more stress, one drug that has been effective in treating him is not approved for prison use, it would be difficult to monitor and adjust his dosages, and the structured program that has helped him would be lost.
Nor, Ring said, should he be punished for his condition.
“I don’t believe ... that Mr. Lowe would have, first of all, abused the substances, done what he did to get them illegally, or made the lousy choices that he made if he were not suffering from a mental illness,” Ring said.
The court also received what Corsones called “many letters” on Lowe’s behalf, and Vergennes Union High School Principal Edwin Webbley spoke on Lowe’s behalf.
Prosecuting the case was Robert Menzel from the attorney general’s office. Menzel repeatedly emphasized what he called Lowe’s breach of the public trust and abuse of authority. He said “an ongoing course of conduct” and “ongoing pattern of neglect of duty” could be seen in both the drug fraud and gun cases.
Together, those represented “a great social concern for the state,” Menzel said, and a police chief engaging in “very egregious behavior in the opinion of the state” should receive a sentence that contained “a punitive element.”
Goldsborough countered that a jail sentence would be counter-productive.
“He’s got a clear head, judge. Don’t send him backwards,” Goldsborough said.
Lowe spoke for about six minutes, his voice breaking with emotion at times. He offered “heartfelt apologies” to each of the members of the Vergennes Police Department by name, and also said he was sorry to his family, friends and the city.
“It really grieves me to leave the community this way,” Lowe said. “And I pray to God daily that I will be able to make amends to my community, the kids in my community and my family. I put them through hell. And it took a year of intensive recovery to get a clear picture of what this was.”
Lowe said the accident was a blessing in disguise.
“Frankly my life was out of control,” he said. “Ultimately, (the crash) saved my life.”
Lowe said he hoped to perform community service by speaking to young people about the evils of drugs, using his own story as a template.
“My goal, though, is to completely turn this around, for my life and to make amends to the people who were directly involved in it,” he said. “Looking back, I cannot believe that I engaged in such behavior to obtain prescription drugs to self-medicate. It’s inexcusable. That said, I have to use the tools that have been given me over the course of this past year to turn this around. I can only ask the community, the people, the court, to be sympathetic in my endeavor, and to have mercy on me.”
Corsones praised Lowe’s statement.
“Mr. Lowe, your elocution speaking here today was the most heartfelt one that I have heard in this courtroom to date. And it is the sincere hope of this court you will use this passion to speak to youth of this community about the horrors of drug addiction,” he said.
But even though Corsones said “incarceration is not necessary for specific deterrence in this case” because Lowe “has taken full responsibility for his actions,” he agreed with Menzel that jail time — or a work camp, as Goldsborough suggested and will argue for before Lowe’s May 12 reporting date — was necessary to send a wider message.
“The sentence must also include a component for the defendant to address the damage he has caused,” Corsones said. “The public needs to know its law enforcement officers can be trusted and will not abuse their authority under any circumstances, even when fueled by drug addiction.”
Reporter Andy Kirkaldy is at email@example.com.